By Jimmy Krug.
Two undefeated fighters. Two contrasting style. The Master Boxer meets the ultimate Pressure Fighter. They called it, “The Fight of the Century,” and almost 40-years later – it still ranks in many boxing historian’s books, including my own, as the biggest overall boxing event of the last 140 years. Although they’d meet a total of 3 times, nothing could match the significance of their first meeting on March 8, 1971.
With Muhammad Ali living in boxing exile after his refusal to be inducted into the armed services, Joe Frazier pounded his way to the top of the Heavyweight fray, capturing the recognition as world champion with a knockout victory over Jimmy Ellis. Before being stripped of his title, Ali had defended it a total of 9 times between 1965.
Ali entered the bout with a record of 31-0 (25). He weighed in at 215lbs. Joe Frazier’s record stood at 26-0 (23). His official weight – 205.5 lbs. By today’s stands, both men would be considered to be “small” Heavyweights. Of course, by today’s standards their punch output would probably off the charts, too, but that’s another story altogether.
The buildup to this fight was of the “once in a lifetime” caliber. By the time both men stepped through the ropes in Madison Square Garden on March 8th, just about every person in the civilized world was either watching, listening by radio or waiting for the results to be broadcast. The event became as much of a political event as it was a sporting event. Ali symbolized radical change while Frazier was the champion of blue collar America. Both men would earn 2.5 million for the bout.
The fight itself lived up to its billing. Frazier applied relentless pressure while Ali countered with blazing combinations. The pace was unbelievably fast and furious from the opening bell. By the middle rounds, Frazier began to take the lead.
In the 11th, Frazier ripped Ali with a hook and raked him with a blitz of follow-up punches. Ali was hurt badly for the first time in his career and only heart allowed him to survive the full 3-minutes. Finally, in the 15th and final round, Frazier exploded his big left hook off Ali’s chin and dropped the former champion flat on his back. Ali arose and appeared to be okay as referee Arthur Mercante gave him a standing 8-count. He later said in an interview – “I don’t even remember getting back up.”
The fight went to the scorecards and Joe Frazier retained his title by unanimous decision. The scores (using the rounds system) were – 8-6-1, 9-6, 11-4.
Afterward Joe Frazier commented, “I was there to do a job. I was gonna get that job done and nothing could have stopped me. If he had a couple of nine millimeters, I would have walked right through them.”
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The Joe Frazier of the early 1970’s matches up very well against many of Boxing’s top Heavyweight champions. The post-Foreman version, the same version that fought Ali twice more, was not the same fighter. There is plenty of available film footage with which you can make the comparison. He just didn’t maintain the same type of energy from round to round.
The younger, lighter version of Frazier who dismantled Jimmy Ellis and defeated Ali by unanimous decision would have been a difficult task for just about any of the champions in the history of the sport. His pressuring style, high punch output and incredible stamina would have pushed many of them to the brink – if not over it.
A truly big puncher, like a Foreman, put Frazier down six times in total before the fight was finally stopped. The fact that Frazier arose so many times to continue seems to suggest that it would take one of history’s “all-time” punchers to keep him on the floor once he put him there. Foreman certainly fit that description.
The fight also reveals as much about Ali as it does Frazier. I always believed the Ali who fought Frazier in “The Fight of the Century” was Ali at his best. That’s not a knock on Ali. Frazier was simply the better man on March 8th. That version of Ali would have been able to outbox George Foreman much easier and take less punishment than the older version did in Zaire.
Ali once said in an interview that, although he lost half a step during his two year absence from the ring, he was much stronger when he returned. A reporter once asked him how the 1970 version of himself would have done against the faster 1960’s version. Ali told him not to assume the younger version would have won. Ali admitted that he was much stronger, smarter fighter in 1970. “Don’t assume the old me couldn’t have whupped the younger version,” he said. “I was physically a lot stronger when I got older.”
Almost forty-years later, “The Fight of the Century” remains just that. It was truly a fight for the ages.